At Woodfire Grill, meat and heat are properly combined


Sometimes a raging inferno in the middle of a restaurant is a good thing.

In the case of Woodfire Grill, the inferno is the wood-burning grill that forms a focal point for the restaurant, which anchors one end of the Park Plaza Shopping Center in Severna Park.

The grill, part of a small exhibition kitchen visible from the bar and some booths, provides a unifying theme for a place that serves everything from inexpensive pizza and burgers to $20-and-over dishes like rack of lamb, filet mignon and ribeye steak.

Not everything is cooked on that grill, of course. Sea scallops and mahi-mahi are among the items that are pan-seared, and of course the onion rings are fried, the mashed potatoes boiled and the salads tossed.

But the grill churns out some of the restaurant's finest dishes, including a pizza with caramelized onions and mounds of smoked bacon that features a particularly wonderful thin and chewy crust.

Though Woodfire offers a few non-meat-centric items, including a fried eggplant dish, most of the entrees are dominated by a substantial slab of something from the animal kingdom.

The high heat of the oven (1,200 degrees, according to the menu) means the meats and seafood are charred on the outside and tender within. A good example of this is a New York strip with so much juicy, meaty flavor it doesn't need the side of gorgonzola demiglace that's offered for an additional $2.

Most of the preparations at Woodfire are straightforward, and that's as it should be. When the restaurant tries to be trendy with an entree like wasabi tuna, the result disappoints. The tuna seemed to have no wasabi flavor at all, leaving a rather bland canvas of seafood in desperate need of spark.

The rack of lamb, on the other hand, was infused with rosemary in a time-tested pairing of flavors that once again proved delicious. The rich flavor of the meat was balanced by the rosemary and at the same time underscored by a rich wine sauce.

Though meats take center stage, side dishes and desserts are not neglected at Woodfire. My favorite side is the garlicky, herb-infused rice, but the salads, with their generous mix of carefully chosen dark and light greens, are notable as well.

Desserts come from Donna's Cafe. The choices vary, but might include a creamy pumpkin cheesecake with a light, almost lemony tang, a rich pecan pie served warm and topped with ice cream, and a dark chocolate cake with a sweet cream-cheese frosting.

In addition to the wood-burning grill, Woodfire has a smoker, responsible for a terrific smoked salmon that's part of a "smoked sampler" appetizer. The salmon, plus nuggets of beef tenderloin and white-meat chicken, all served cold and infused with a delicate smokiness, share a plate with three creamy dipping sauces, one with horseradish, another with saffron and a third green with herbs.

The saffron and cold tenderloin give this dish a bit of bling, and at $12.99 it's the most expensive appetizer the restaurant offers. You can have a wonderful meal at Woodfire without spending a lot of money, but you'd have to be careful, as the total can add up quickly. Add on a signature sauce for two bucks, or throw crab-stuffed shrimp on the plate for $9.99, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

Still, Woodfire, which opened seven years ago, manages to find a nice balance between high-end and casual. The restaurant, a sister to the more casual Garry's Grill restaurants in Severna Park and Glen Burnie, looks expensive, with its high ceilings and attractive booths, but it also has a cozy back room, warmed by a gas fireplace and featuring live music on Friday and Saturday nights.

This is a worthwhile destination, both for a casual night out or a more special occasion.

Woodfire Grill

Where: 580 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park

Call: 410-315-8100

Open: Daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $4.99-$11.99, entrees $7.99-$29.99

Food: ***1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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